Race still an issue for voters, 4 years on
Columnist Danny Westneat writes of his surprise that a University of Washington professor has concluded in a large psychological study that race is having a big influence in the 2012 election.
Seattle Times staff columnist
When President Obama spoke recently about the Trayvon Martin case — "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," he said — I had an odd side reaction to his comments.
I realized I'd forgotten the president is black.
OK, "forgotten" is too strong a word. It was more like the fact of Obama's race hadn't entered my conscious mind for I don't know how long — months, at least.
Maybe this is progress of a sort.
Or maybe it isn't fair, because he's as much a trailblazer today as he was when he first got elected.
But I stopped seeing him as such. The first black president became, in the day-to-day tedium of politics, more like the boring 44th president.
So I am a little surprised that a University of Washington professor has concluded in a large psychological study that race is having a big influence in the 2012 election.
Racial attitudes of voters may be playing a bigger role than they did even in 2008, when the issue was front and center.
"The potency of race is not weakening," says Tony Greenwald, a UW psychologist. "Nearly four years into Obama's presidency, people overlook that his race does still matter."
Greenwald says that what I thought I was thinking about this issue isn't particularly relevant. His specialty is teasing out "hidden" attitudes — views that people may not know they have. So far this year he and psychologists at Harvard and the University of Virginia have tested the subconscious racial attitudes of 14,707 voters.
The test measures the mind's subconscious reactions to various racial cues — say, photos of whites or blacks — to create a race "preference" score. It ranks how warmly you feel toward racial groups. Or how coolly.
"This is not accusing anyone of being racist, or of promoting racist beliefs," Greenwald says. "These effects show up in people that specifically disavow any racial bias and would tend to think of themselves as egalitarian."
What's interesting is when Greenwald cross-links subconscious racial attitudes to how people vote. Voters with strong white racial preferences tend to favor Republican candidates, for example.
This link is clear enough that Greenwald concluded, in a 2009 paper, that there was "no question" Obama would have won by more than he did four years ago if it were possible to conduct voting free of race bias.
Obama won anyway, Greenwald says, because the Republican campaign was "incompetent" that year. And also because race bias worked in Obama's favor among minority voters.
How the mind chooses whom to vote for is a complex matter. You may gravitate subconsciously to whoever is most like you, but end up voting based on a slew of other considerations — about the economy, say, or who seems the most competent or sides with your views on, say, health-care reform.
So Greenwald has tried to isolate voters' racial attitudes from their political biases. The result provocatively suggests that even liberals who have subconscious "white preferences" also tend to favor Republican candidates versus Obama. Internal racial bias can be so powerful it trumps political bias in the voting booth.
How could racial attitudes about a black president possibly be hardening, not easing? If nothing else, we've had nearly four years to get used to it.
Greenwald said he doesn't know. The data suggests it, but doesn't explain it.
But during much of Obama's first few years there were loud, manufactured "controversies" about whether he's a Muslim or was born in America. These were strong hints, Greenwald speculates, that large parts of the country were not getting used to it.
"It may be because he was only a candidate in 2008. Now he's the president. He's far more powerful now," Greenwald says. "That may stir race-based antagonists that simply sat out the election in 2008."
"Not necessarily consciously, though," he added.
Only in our minds. But that seems like kind of a crucial battleground state.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 206-464-2086